The Multilingual Brain
Updated: Feb 13, 2020
By Reeti Shah
Did you know that as of 2016, around 20.14% of the US population is bilingual? While this might seem low, consider this: in 1980, this percentage was 10.68%. Knowing more than one language has many effects on your brain, both positive and negative (although the positive more than compensates for the negative).
Before understanding the effects of bilingualism on the brain, however, we have to understand the meaning of bilingualism. The definition of bilingual—knowing two languages—is not as simple as it seems, because we have to consider both language use and proficiency (how good you are in understanding that language). For example, many people learn languages as children, but then end up forgetting them as they grow up. Also, some people can understand a language but may not be able to speak it. Other possible cases can be having the ability to speak and understand a language, but not being able to write it. Thus, bilingualism is not always clearly defined. Generally, the more proficient you are in a language, the more bilingual you become.
Let's begin by examining some of the negative effects of bilingualism. Studies done on bilingualism have shown that bilinguals are slower in learning new vocabulary as they have to split their time between two languages. Also, the verbal skills of bilinguals are weaker in each of their languages, when compared to monolinguals (speakers of one language). Research has shown that bilinguals respond slower when they are communicating, as their brains take time in understanding and coming up with the proper words for an adequate response. This was true even when bilinguals were communicating in their dominant language.
However, knowing more than one language has tremendous positive effects for cognitive development. Bilingual children have better executive control, which is responsible for cognitive functions such as switching attention, working memory and inhibition—a mechanism in our brain to discard irrelevant information. As bilinguals constantly switch between languages, they are better at navigating between tasks, even if the tasks aren’t related to language. Bilingual people also do better when spatial working memory tasks are considered. Spatial memory refers to memory relating to one’s environment and spatial orientation.
A study done at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences showed that bilingual babies had more activity in their prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortices, which are responsible for complex cognitive behavior, such as personality, decision-making and moderating social behavior. This proved that the ideal time for children to learn many languages is their early childhood, according to Naja Ferjan Ramirez, the lead author of the study and a research scientist at the University of Washington.
Bilingualism is also extremely helpful for the elderly, as studies have shown that it helps in maintaining their cognitive function and delays the appearance of symptoms of dementia by as much as five years. It also potentially contributes to an increase in the cognitive reserve in the elderly, due to which the onset of Alzheimer’s disease is also delayed. In fact, the brains of bilingual people affected by Alzheimer’s operate at the same cognitive level as those of monolingual people with lesser brain degeneration.
Lastly, it is clear that knowing more than one language has significant effects on the brain. Bilingualism helps accelerate cognitive development in children and improves executive control in the brain.
It’s never too late to start learning and becoming proficient in another language!
Editor: Caitlin Quinn